The Albisola Biennial of Ceramics’ reason for being

Francois Burkhardt

General State of the Market and Craft Industry
In order to fully grasp the cultural scope and merits of an enterprise like that undertaken by the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics, it needs to be set within the particularly tricky context of local craft production in Italy today, at the beginning of the 21st century.
The crisis that has been afflicting the ceramics industry in Italy for over 30 years mirrors that afflicting the whole of the craft industry in Western Europe. It is actually a triple crisis connected with the uncontrolled growth in post-modern industrial society: firstly, the crisis hits the organisation of distribution within a manufacturing system with rather hazy bounds, particularly due to the simultaneous launching of rival products on the market at low prices, without taking into account the needs of production geared to the latest conditions and guaranteeing a balance between the natural and industrial environments, a realm in which craft is destined to make its own considerable contribution. Secondly, the crisis concerns recognition of the cultural worth of quality craftsmanship and acknowledgement of the central role that craft can play as a model for cutting-edge production revitalised from an iconographic viewpoint. Finally, the crisis hits the training sector, which is no longer capable of reliably passing on know-how; indeed, following the obvious drop in income of craftsmen and rise in social burdens combined with excessively high taxation policies, the entire industry has suffered a gradual but widely acknowledged downturn and decline in professional skills and expertise.
We can, therefore, claim without the slightest hesitation that the general crisis in the craft industry is due to the undeniable disadvantages which small companies are suffering, while major industries and international trusts have clearly benefited and been protected by the politics of the globalised economy. The revival in craftsmanship, particularly authentic high-quality craft work, primarily depends on a profound readjusting of relations between craft and industry on a conceptual level, but also on taxation policy, something which is currently hard to envisage, bearing in mind the deficits weighing on most of the countries involved. Nevertheless, there must, first and foremost, be a radical turnaround in the attitude towards the goals set by management and by political leadership still blinded by the magnetic attraction of annual growth in gross internal product, which, according to this vision, ought to increase all the time, despite the level of saturation which markets have already reached.
Only the emergence of a new and authentic production culture, ethnically based around scrupulously respecting the rules of eco-compatibility and geared to actual market demand and consumption genuinely corresponding to the community’s needs, can restore credibility to market economics and contribute to the emancipation of the 21st century society, well aware of the issues involved and ready to tackle them democratically.

Craftsmanship taken as stepping stone towards Industrial Productions
If craftsmanship is adapted in this way to present-day market reality, society and environment, then it will hold onto all its reasons for being. It is actually a viable alternative to industrial growth, an approach focusing on and favouring the individual, pluralism, constrained mass production or partly handmade products, for which there is still a genuine demand and a clearly targeted market. This kind of craftsmanship could actually be a stepping stone towards new kinds of industrial products, in that it could provide experimental guidelines for industrial design or a testing ground on a small or medium scale, as well as a means of controlling mass production in the future. Since investment in tools and technology is still unquestionably extremely important and burdensome, the craft or semi-craft approach is unquestionably more suited for manufacturing the prototypes vitally required for further mass production. The construction of prototypes is still today the privileged domain of craftsmanship or, in any case, still works along craft lines even in big companies. Back in 1935 Walter Gropius recognized the experimental role of craftsmanship, when he stated that: “industry and craft and will always be very closely related. Craft has changed from how it was in the past and the craftsmanship of the future will take the shape of a new realm combining both experimentation and industrial production” (in The New Architecture and the Bauhaus).

Craftsmanship still plays an important role in Italian Product Design
Despite progress in three-dimensional computer simulation techniques and the incorporation of new means of technology in general, it may be claimed that Italian industrial production in all the various sectors is still based on craftsmanship, which proves to be indispensable for how it operates on various levels. For example, the furniture, fashion and accessories industries, as well as the gastronomic arts, all key sectors for Italian exports, cannot operate effectively without craftsmanship. In these industries craftsmanship contributes directly to this kind of production through relations with industry; this means that reflecting on the possible revitalisation of craftsmanship based on its relations with industry is, particularly in Italy, an excellent and very topical idea, since methods of studying projects, production, distribution and sales in these key realms could also help bring about the necessary changes in other industries driven along in their wake, like for example craft ceramics.

Transferring material into the Virtual Realm and the lack of meaning this entails
Compared to virtual reality, which is taking on an increasingly important role in 21st century society, the material world or manufacturing of real objects has the advantage of satisfying one of the most vital needs of human beings, that associated with sensuality. For human perception, the sense of touch still provides the first real physical contact with concrete reality in our environment, in contrast with the illusion of achieving this kind of contact by means of virtual reality, which actually belongs to the realm of the visible and also abstract. The loss of tactile awareness is an issue which is still completely ignored by electronics, even though it is directly related to the more general loss of awareness which has such extremely negative consequences for human beings’ ability to communicate. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the development of personality and its gradual maturing are very directly linked to sensorial finesse. In this context, the craft industry can provide a very useful benchmark for claiming that physical practice and manual labour and the fact they are so appreciated by people buying craft objects have an extremely positive effect on the development of our sense of touch, not just to the benefit of those people who make these objects but, in the same way, to those who use them.

Craftsmanship, a positive example embodying the unity of Creator-Engineer- Constructor
One of the aspects of craftsmanship which I am most interested in is the unity created by this “know-how”, as design and construction come together in the same pair of hands. A craft object is defined as being “worked in craftsman-like fashion, hence based on a process which brings together the various aspects of a project into one single executive scheme” (Vittorio Fagone), which means that the object is designed and constructed in its entirety by the same person.
The separating of the envisaging of manual labour and its various specialisations had already begun back in the Italian Renaissance, and a fine example of this is the workshop of the ceramic artist Della Robbia during the Florentine Renaissance; the principle of association by means of a system for coordinating different specialisations was already being implemented. The system was based on a different kind of organisation of object production from craftsmanship, geared to the assembly of specific parts. The basic concept was to group together the different specialisations required for medium scale and mass production. It is actually the methods for manufacturing objects of the same type in large quantities which marks the difference between craftsmanship and industry, because industrialisation has its own systems for planning, working and organisation and also its own manufacturing rhythms, which are different from those of craftsmanship.
The more complex the work carried out by a single person, the more realms this person needs to bring together, so the person has a better global vision, not only in relation to the manufacturing of the object but also in terms of the meaning given to the object created in this way. This extensive knowledge of the various practices involved in the different fields helps the creator to meet the demand more effectively, both in terms of production and practical usage. This lack of specialisation allows knowledge to be passed on from one sector to another and, for this reason, to multiply the combinatorial possibilities underpinning the principle of innovation, while, in contrast, extreme specialisation leads towards standardised know-how and even a certain alienation due to its constant repetitiveness.

The cultural shortcomings of craftsmanship in terms of updating its language
One of the biggest difficulties facing craftsmen in relation to innovation concerns expertise connected with iconography and its updating. Generally speaking, it involves a failure to upgrade the languages used in the various realms in which they are employed, a shortcoming which results in production being based on obsolete historical guidelines of no great interest to the modern-day market. Due to this failure to update, which unfortunately is often deliberate, craft often falls back on a type of production which reveals a lack of cutting-edge cultural knowledge and a symptomatic failure to keep up with developments in the latest techniques. While, on one hand, it is true that implementing radical innovations in the craft industry may partly break with the traditional roots of production and result in certain old-fashioned techniques being lost, since they are no longer handed down to the up-and-coming generations, on the other hand it needs to be acknowledged that the craft industry must nevertheless follow the general evolution in the process of civilisation, for example by adapting to the requirements of new technology and allowing itself to be constantly updated in terms of its stylistic idiom. The challenge lies in reforming the craft professions while holding onto their specific traits and identity, things which make them different from the practice and production of industrial design. More than a matter of material investments, it is a question of mentality, which, first and foremost, lies at the root of the difficulties craftsmen are finding in progressing in the direction of cutting-edge craft production. In the long term only craftsmanship adapted to the needs and conditions of present-day post-industrial society will get the chance to find its own satisfactory production niche alongside industrial manufacturing, which for its part meet these demands. In this case, we might even hope and envisage a combination of these two production sectors.
This trend towards a more productive vision of craft will provide the quality required to move onto a different kind of craftsmanship from that which we know today. This is the great challenge which craftsmanship must take on over coming decades.

Safeguarding its own identity means protecting its own freedom
Safeguarding its own independence in face of the demands of manufacturers out on the market is a critical issue for which product design still has not managed to find satisfactory solutions incorporating their own ethical code. Ettore Sottsass claimed quite rightly that a designer is, first and foremost, at the service of mankind, posing the key question: “do we exist to serve industry or to design for people?”. The fact that this question was posed by such a famous industrial designer as Sottsass highlights something problematic in how the profession relates production to the consumer. This was very clear and an integral part of the philosophy of design at the beginning of the 1960s, and back then it was at the very focus of the designer’s concerns. But the designer has gradually distanced himself from how things stood back then, under the influence of a movement which has favoured industrial production, all too often for no other reason than to produce at all costs and boundlessly, in order to meet the needs of a ruling class focusing on the prosperity of what has become an independent economic system, existing almost exclusively on its own and for its own sake. So one of the problems which product design must tackle today is the need to become less dependent on this system and make itself independent, so that it can create responsibly according to certain fundamental guidelines: ethically, ecologically and socially, while also ensuring it does not favour mock consumerism, so that it achieves a level of authority and respect which will actually impose dialogue. The current tendency towards overconsumption has, in fact, quite familiar negative effects when it promises behavioural patterns encouraging consumer dependency or when it aims at placing itself at the centre of consumers’ attention, thereby taking on a symbolic status, a phenomenon which the manufacturers of design objects very often generate more or less deliberately.
The same observation could be made about craft objects. The tendency to join forces with economic power is, however, considerably played down by the fact that the craft profession is not acknowledged as a real player, as, in contrast, happens with other industries, so this leaves craftsmen with greater freedom. In the case of craftsmanship there is talk of it being a “second art”, while product design is seen as a seismograph measuring how industrial society is developing and, hence, it is classed among the “main arts”. In this instance this is not a disadvantage. Even though they are organised in their own corporate associations, craftsmen appear to me to be more open in their approach to economic state of affairs and less dependent on the politics of official bodies. Despite the numerous disadvantages craftsmen are forced to deal with, they remain extremely attached to their profession, not just because they are still very much creative, but mainly because they still believe very deeply in the sense of their work and the value of what they produce, particularly thanks to the satisfaction they derive from it. This is also the reason why, despite all the obstacles, they still set about their profession with great zeal, even in what are often very precarious material situations. In many cases craftsmen are still idealists proud of their know-how. This also allows them to embrace an ethical code more easily and put it into practice.

A Craft Object is neither an Art Object nor a Design Object: so how can it be defined?
On the cusp between design products and art objects, craft production define its position on a theoretical basis and then assume this status. Craftsmanship is neither art nor product design, even though it is actually close to both these realms. In all artistic trades there is unquestionably a purely artistic part, without this entailing that the final product falls within the category of art objects. The conflict between art and design accentuated in the wake of internal debate within the Ulm School in the early 1960s; according to Max Bill, the school’s first dean, the profession is opposed to an artistic conception of design. This tendency is still in vogue today and affects all design professions. For designers, artistry is preferably to be avoided in favour of more rational and controllable aesthetics. This means it is difficult for critics to highlight the fact that design, like all manufacturing of material goods, is influenced by the artistic trends of the moment. A typical obstacle facing the current theory of rationalist design consists in wanting to free itself from this kind of artistic thinking at all costs.
The freedom which the applied arts have achieved allows them to express themselves much more liberally. Indeed, there are now many artists working in this sector and relations between art and product design are more fluid. The images characterising the ceramics on display at Albisola, for example, show the influence of input from artists like Fontana, Manzoni or Jorn, and it is these men who have given local production its own specific stylistic language. From the viewpoint of product design methods, artistic creation is a process which does not fully correspond to that of product design, nor that of everyday craft products. This latter process involves an approach which incorporates some very distinctive parameters, such as the type of materials chosen, the purpose for which an object is designed, tactile quality (Greifbarkeit), the way an object identifies with its function, how the object is read perceptually according to the formal symbolism its designer is trying to communicate, restrictions due to the type of tools used in its creation, and references to local tradition etc., all guidelines which it is hard to apply to a work of art and which are only partly applicable to design objects. This means it is extremely important to clearly set the boundaries between these three different spheres, so that they can clearly hold onto certain obvious correspondences, and to set down specific intrinsic guidelines and parameters for each of them.

The Role of the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics
The Albisola Biennial can play an important role in this context, as regards the crucial aspect of the theoretical search for a definition of what really counts as 21st century craft. Deeply rooted in an area strongly influenced by the abstract and gestural movements of art brut from the 1950s, which in turn drew on earlier Futurism, Albisola ceramics have for a long time been anonymous in terms of its products. The general crisis afflicting the craft industry has now been aggravated by the crisis caused by a kind of production too closely focused on local values. The Albisola Biennial of Ceramics deserves credit for having recognized this shortcoming, allowing it to attempt to mediate between art, craft and design, appealing to leading exponents of all three. This project is based on the production of feasible prototypes for developing a collection of marketable designer objects. Bearing in mind the high standard of the objects produced and the fame of most of the creative people involved in this project, the idea to produce a collection of “Contemporary Ceramics made in Albisola” seemed to me to be quite realistic and commercially promising, provided a suitably scaled distribution programme could be set in place.
This testing ground of Albisola, which required the organisers to take some major risks, is an important benchmark for gauging the capacity of local manufacturing and also for selecting the most appropriate production methods, which will allow the transition from an art in which everything is handmade to the use of craft-style techniques, revamped along semi-industrial lines or a least produced in small numbers, thereby breaking free from the idea of a one-off piece. The fact that certain pieces have already had to be made in synergy with other ceramics manufacturing centres, due to technological shortcomings in the local production industry, is an initial indicator of the fact that the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics is not just aimed at reviving the image and reputation of this region of Italy, but is also a platform for confronting other production centres in the field of ceramics, which are equally affected by the crisis but which, however, have shown great skill at adapting to other artistic and commercial usages and thereby guaranteeing a better future for the craft industry in their region.
In this period of globalisation, the answer clearly lies in openness, co-operation and modernisation, continuing to strive to progress by means of interaction on three levels: regional, national and international. This, in my opinion, is where the right solution lies to the issues we are now facing. This is why this Biennial must not just be confined to the Liguria region, but must also open up to international contacts, which will allow this region and its products to spread their reputation abroad, thereby becoming a means of communication for the Borough of Albisola, the region and even the nation it represents. Of course, all this can only be achieved on a modest scale at the moment, but it is destined to expand rapidly. It will provide aid not just for the craft industry but for local industry in general. Joining forces with Italian design, which is already so famous all over the world, focusing on quality and innovation in the field of craft associated with art and design, is the challenge which this edition of the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics is setting itself, and a project which deserves the decisive support of local and national institutions, which, however, still are not sufficiently committed to this line of thinking. Indeed, we really need to underline just to what extent the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics is a dynamic and economically stimulating factor for the whole region.
The most recent editions of this event have drawn attention to a set of products which deserve constant showcasing. It would seem that forthcoming editions of the Albisola Biennial of Ceramics will be able to bring together a large number of quality objects and prototypes with great potential on the European craft and design scene. We must immediately provide a place where all these cultural assets can be stored and displayed, creating a future ceramics museum in the region. A project of this cultural scope, with all its economic and tourist implications, deserves to be showcased better. This is one of the obvious reasons why I am interested in and supporting this edition of the Albisola Biennial.

Text published in the catalogue of the 4th Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “Changing the world with a vase of flowers”, Corraini Edizioni, Mantova, Italia, 2010.